Sunday, January 10, 2016

On Anchor Collapse and Actually Deciding

"Collapsing Anchors" is a neat concept. For the non-hypnotist readers, "anchoring" is basically just NLP's renaming of "classical conditioning". Pavlov "anchored" the anticipation of food to the stimulus of a ringing bell.

"Collapsing anchors", in short, is firing two different anchors at once so that they interact and stuff changes. It's usually talked about as a "mind hack" you can use to "get rid of" "negative emotions" and replace them with "positive" ones. As if you have a bucket of sadness and a bucket of happiness and you just pour them both into the bigger pot and the happiness "cancels out" the sadness until all the sadness is gone and left with happiness.

In real life, it's much more context dependent than that, and much more general as well. A more useful way to think of it is to take two mindsets that aren't sure how to coexist and introduce them to each other until they learn how to play nicely together. A confidence anchor doesn't "cancel out" a fear anchor, it's just giving you a chance to figure out how to be confident in that (formerly) scary situation. It's a chance to take whatever useful bits from one mindset and apply them to the other. This integration is necessarily an active ingredient in many protocols that focus on higher levels, and it should fold in naturally when the broader context dictates.

For a description of how NLPers do it as a "mind hack" with kinesthetic anchors, query google. In short, it's "Fire up state A, touch spot 1. Break state. Fire up state B, touch spot 2. Break state. Touch spot 1 AND spot 2. Enjoy the fireworks.". It's worth playing with in the formal way as a way of generating reference experiences, but the potential is so much more.

The first time I collapsed anchors explicitly was a profound experience for me (and my girlfriend/"experimental subject"). I was trying to use touch anchors to augment the words I was using, but to keep it - well not really natural, but close enough that it could become natural once I got used to it. So I wasn't explaining what I was doing at the time, but it was obvious I was up to something. I did a bad job breaking state after testing one anchor, so when I fired the other anchor a moment before the punchline words came out, the change had already begun. It was a very "woah...." moment for her. Not just because of the collapsing of the two powerful anchors, but also from the fact that it was so clearly not a result of verbal argument. Again, she had known that I was up to something with my not-so-subtle touch anchors, but she wasn't expecting that.

The fact that touch anchors alone work is a pretty good example of how it ain't about whether your argument holds logically, but whether it connects emotionally. The project of developing one's rationality is making sure that rational argument connects emotionally, and explicating emotional connection to logical argument. That's why it's so important to understand the framework of and have reference experiences for anchor collapse as it applies to everything.

The point isn't "here's a mind hack!", though that can be neat. The point is to familiarize yourself with the feel of integrating "opposing" mindsets so that it is accessible when you need to stop using will power and actually make a congruent decision. There are reasons to not always collapse anchors, of course. That's one reason why people avoid doing it - often even when encouraged to do so. However, without an awareness that it is even possible, things often don't get integrated when it would be helpful.

I like to think of collapsing and integrating anchors as "actually making a decision". In the case of "fear"+"confidence", it's "decide whether to feel afraid or confident" - which doesn't typically sound like something you can "just choose", and that's kinda the point. If it always felt like that we wouldn't need to talk about it. That just means it's a decision we're obstructing. All real decisions are "subconscious" in this sense, and it's just that some of them we aren't willing to risk deciding the "wrong" thing and so prevent it from happening.

I'll give you an example.

Say you're afraid of dogs. You don't want to be afraid of dogs, of course, because you like dogs and everyone knows that only some dogs are mean. You can't just "decide" to not be afraid of dogs, are you kidding? That's just how brains work. It's a conditioned response and you can't just "decide" not to be conditioned - besides, don't you think you'd have done it already if you could?

Well yeah, you can't write the bottom line first. That's your problem. However, you can decide whether to be afraid of dogs. And you don't want to even consider deciding to be this afraid of dogs because we all know that would be stupid - and you don't want to be stupid, so you deny that the other side of the argument even exists. "There's no reason for it"/"its irrational"/"I have a phobia".

This even happens over things we normally like to think we have control over, like physical behaviors. If the fear is so irrational, then there's no real risk of petting the dog, right? Go pet the dog... Oh, you "can't". Because you're afraid. Right.

But let's be real here. Dogs bite. I've been bit. If you're phobic, you've probably been bit too. If you give yourself some room to not worry about looking stupid and look at the facts, there's a reason to be afraid of dogs. You can't guarantee you won't get bit again, and getting bit really freaked you out. You really don't want it to happen again. Once you admit this you can start to frame it as a decision

Perhaps start trying to seeing things this way with things you feel like you "should" be able to decide yet can't ("do I pet the dog") and work towards things that seem firmly out of your locus of control ("do I fear the dog?"). Once you get used to it, it's really amazing stuff. When my girlfriend is sick and feeling nauseated, I just ask her if there's a reason to feel that way. She'll actually think about it (instead of exclaiming "of course not!"), and if she says "no", she feels better. I'm telling you. Cool stuff.

But just because you see it as a decision doesn't mean you know how to make it.

So you've admitted that yes, the dog might bite you, and that would be really bad. But you still want to pet the dog! So you tell me "jimmmy! I want to not be afraid of dogs so I can pet them!"

"So pet the dog"

"But it might bite me!"

"It might"

"But I don't want it to bite me!

"You don't. And if it does, it will be real hurty. Have you considered that maybe you shouldn't pet the dog?"

"But I want to pet the dog!"

"Then pet the dog"

"But it might bite me!"

...And we can go on all day like this. You're wanting to pet the dog and not be afraid, but you're also not wanting to get bit. As if there's anything I can do about it. The risk is part of the territory.

But you won't make your decision. You won't shit or get off the pot. You're keeping the desire to pet the doggy separate from the desire to not get bit. So it goes back and forth and there's this inner conflict.

And the way people often handle these is to just get sick of the struggle and suppress one side. "Okay, I know its a nice doggy so I'm gonna pretend that I'm okay with risking getting bit when really I'm not and I'll just suppress that". Only what they actually say to themselves is more like "I know its safe. I already decided. The fear is irrational and I want it gone."

But that's not shitting or getting off the pot. That's not collapsing the anchors. The two desires are still separate, so that's not actually deciding. You just decided to tell yourself that the toilet is actually the most comfortable seat in the house.

But that's nonsense. Of course you don't want to get bit. Who wants to get bit? Getting bit is hurty and bad. And you want to pet the doggy. At the same time. Of course you want to pet the doggy. Doggies are cute and nice. And you haven't let yourself go there because "I can't have it so I'm not allowed to think it" but you really wish you could pet the dog with no risk of it biting you. It's the best of both worlds. It would be really nice to pet the dog with no risk of it biting you.

So you don't exactly want to have to chose. You want the best of both worlds, and here I am telling you "one or the other". No wonder you find it hard to choose. No wonder you're playing salient desire pong.

Personally, I'd rather ask myself "can I have both?". If I can, to hell with choosing one or the other! I'm gonna find that better way to discriminate and pet only the nice dogs without petting the dogs that might bite me! Happy smiling labradors? Yes, I'll pet it. Rescue pit bull (or worse, rescue wolf-hybrid) with her hackles up? Maaaaaaybe not.

Of course, we can't always have both. And that sucks. It's not a fun realization to have. Even though my sweet little Labrador is the most harmless animal on the planet, there is some nonzero chance of it biting me - and if that were a sufficiently scary possibility, I wouldn't want to accept that it might happen, however unlikely. And there's no way I can further discriminate. Unfortunately, this one is one or the other. I either get to be completely safe from dog bites, or I get to pet my dog. And I have to choose.

But by this point, choosing isn't so hard. Or rather, it's still hard, but only a very different kind of hard. I'm no longer tempted by "but I want both!". It's no longer hard in the "I can't get myself to decide" sense. Just in the "this sucks and there's a big loss either way" sense. A sinking feeling of giving up. A necessary giving up, with some sense of relief.

And so you can back up and look at it all like this. And make some room for them to coexist. Or alternatively you could just play the salient desire pong with an annoying jerk saying "What do you want?" until you fatigue of it and stop holding them apart. Or you could play with kinesthetic anchors as a hack and fire them simultaneously and ignore the urges to toss them apart. Or whatever. Doesn't matter.

The interesting thing is what happens the moment you stop holding the desires apart and experience them both simultaneously. This is collapsing anchors

And it goes something like this...

I want to pet the doggie, and if I do, I might get bit.




(Seriously, give it a moment. Shit takes time.)


Is it worth it?

Am I willing to stick my hand out and pet that dog knowing that there is some chance that the dog is going to bite it?

And then you sigh a bit. And then you're silent. And you picture not the separate issues of petting (good!) and being bit (bad!) but the combination package of getting to pet the dog but maaaaaybe getting bit. It doesn't yet have a goodness value, since you have not assigned one yet. You've never weighed the ingredients and settled on a value for the package deal - you just sat there pouting about the fact that you couldn't separate them.

So it takes some sitting. And some silence. And some passively imagining the package deal and asking yourself "do I want that?". It's a very system 1 thing. System 2 can watch. System 2 can notice that not all the factors of emotional weight are on the table and go fetch them. But it's not system 2's job to try to micromanage system 1 and tell it what to want. That would make system 2 a controlling bitch. No, we're just asking ourselves - our system 1 - "Do we want that? What do you think, system 1?"

And when the answer comes to you there's no "but"s. It's not "I want to pet the doggy but I don't want to get bit". Because it's not two things. We're not asking "wouldn't you like to pet the doggy?". We already know you do. We're asking if you want the package deal. We're asking about what you don't know. And when you have an answer to that, it's just an answer - "yes, I want that deal" or "no, I do not want that deal".

If your answer is yes, then you can say "yes, I want to pet the dog, even knowing that I might get bit. I still want to pet the dog because it's worth it. I want that package deal where my hand gets bit sometimes."

Or if your answer is no, then you say "No, I don't want to pet the dog. It's not worth the chance of getting bit". And that's the end of it. It's not "but I wish I could pet it and it wouldn't bite me!" because you know that comes with the territory - it's a dog and you can't predict them perfectly. That "but I wish..." thought just feels pointless. Like "of course I wish! what's your point?". Like "Wouldn't you like a million dollars to just fall out of the sky?" "um, sure? who wouldn't?" - but the thought doesn't hold your attention.

And either way, there's no conflict. No two separate desires. Just a congruent choice coming from a decision you had not made before.

That's what it's like to have collapsed the anchors. Digging up one emotional component with the verbal handle "I want to pet my dog" and the other with the handle "and I don't want to get bit". Taking the two emotional components that you've been keeping apart and bringing them together. And sitting. And letting system 1 do its work. And coming out the other side congruent and at peace, if not ecstatic. And it's really good shit.


  1. What about the case where there is no clear "negative argument" for a phobia? I was terrified of spiders when I was younger, and there was never any obvious reason for it -- I was never bit by a spider, I didn't live in an area with any significant poisonous spiders, and I could never figure out what, specifically, I was afraid of other than the entire package of "spider". Is there a way to solve a conflict like that, where there's no actual _conflict_ to collapse?

    1. Since it's not about the words but the emotional charge behind them, you don't have to have an explanation for why "spider" is a scary category in order to weigh the terms and see what happens for any specific question. "I want to get back inside but there's a spider in the doorway". Who cares why you don't like spiders, fact is you don't - and you can put a value on this fear. You can still answer "What do I want more? To avoid my (apparently unnecessary?) discomfort about spiders or to get back inside?". If you decide to go inside it'll be scary, but the scariness won't exactly be a "bad" thing.

      However, if you're not happy with your level of fear for spiders, you might want to actually not be afraid rather than simply being okay with being afraid and doing it anyway (though that *can* cause the fear to melt away on its own, in some cases). If that's the goal, I'd focus more on the question "Are spiders worth fearing?" and the related questions that will bring up ("can it hurt me?" "how likely is that?" "how hard is it to avoid?" etc). It might be a weird one if you can't access the reasoning behind it, but you can still work with it. "I don't know why I'm afraid". Okay, so is that fear likely to be well grounded in opaque wisdom of some sort, or is it likely ignorable nonsense? Are you willing to plow over this Chesterton's fence?

      The chain of answering (if it turns out to be your congruent choice, that is) "I am willing to discard any wisdom that may be in this fear" to "spiders are not dangerous or worth avoiding" should lead you to where you can answer "so next time there's a spider in the doorway you can just walk in anyway and not even be afraid?" with a congruent "yes".

      The next couple posts (which will be published soon/soonish) are kinda related.